It’s something I’ve noticed in myself for a while now. I hate it, but I find it occurs all too easily. Maybe you suffer from it too? It’s the question of what comes out first.
Picture the scene: you’re in a conversation, maybe with someone you know well or it could be someone you’ve just met but who you feel is coming from a similar place, and the subject turns to the name of a mutual acquaintance/preacher/theologian/ministry leader. What comes out first?
Maybe. Or perhaps if you’re anything like me, you instead find yourself showing you know the person by choosing to highlight one of their weaknesses or faults.
Perhaps it’s that their personality is a little bit “unorthodox”, or they have their own foibles and fancies which make them stand out a bit. Or there’s that slightly wacky aspect of their theology. Whatever it is, that’s where we go first.
…”Ah, Bob, yes, funny bloke isn’t he. Have you heard what he believes about X?”
And so for some reason, you both end up joining together in identifying the other person by their defects and blemishes. It’s like some distorted form of ‘name-dropping’ with bonus points for knowing someone’s flaws. Sound familiar?
For a start, it shows I’ve got a pretty whack biblical anthropology. I mean, what has happened to my doctrine of sin? Do I suddenly expect everyone to be perfect, to the point where every fault becomes a ‘kiss and tell’ story for me to exploit? And where has my “glorious treasure in jars of clay” understanding of ministry gone? Is no one else apart from me allowed to be a jar of clay?
Thomas Brooks, a Christian pastor from the seventeenth century, put it like this:
“It is sad…that saints should have many eyes to behold one another’s infirmities, and not one eye to see each other’s graces.“
There’s that classic axiom of “Say ten positives, before you say one negative”, and perhaps that’s a good ratio to have in the back of one’s mind. But the problem isn’t fixed by simply doing a numbers check. The real problem is exposed as we consider why we say what we say. Why is it that this comes out first?
This takes us to the ideas CS Lewis explored in his ‘Inner Ring’ essay. By highlighting someone’s faults, I am actually trying to highlight something about myself. I have something to prove, and I do that by disproving someone else. I am letting my conversation partner know that I am well aware of the third person’s flaws, and by implication I am establishing myself as different. I am the clued-up one. I am not the oddity. I am the one who is strong/sorted/normal.
Yet the irony is that as I indulge in laying bare someone else’s faults, it is my own insecurities and my own pride that are bubbling visibly to the service. James speaks of the same mouth being used to both praise God and curse those made in the image of God (3:9-10), before stressing “this should not be”.
After all do I really imagine I am any different to them? Do I really expect, should my name turn up in someone else’s conversation, that no one would have any weaknesses or weirdnesses, faults or failings, to mention concerning me? In reality where would they even start?
Now I’m not saying we all have to pretend everyone’s perfect or that we can never talk about weaknesses. I’m not after some hagiographical Christianity that never evaluates itself or its leaders. I’m just suggesting that, if our tendency is to often identify people by subtly dissing them in some way, then it’s worth us asking what’s going on in our own hearts.